Scott, Godwin, and the Casuistry of Romantic Individualism: Politics, Legal Dysfunction, and Social Inequality

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European Romantic Review


Though William Godwin and Walter Scott stated politically opposite goals in their differently historical novelistic projects, they shared an underlying investment in personal judgment as a corrective provided by the implicit suggestion that the novel itself is more capable of solving certain problems than is the courtroom. This essay examines moral and legal justice in Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) and in Scott’s Guy Mannering (1815) alongside their authors’ involvement in real cases, from Godwin’s role in the treason trials of the 1790s to Scott’s decisions as rural magistrate in Selkirkshire. Godwin’s and Scott’s emphasis on a backward-looking, historical understanding of personal judgment over modern legal principles and procedures appears to be philosophically conservative, yet they theorize social justice as a function of a legal system properly sensitive to the individuality of the accused’s character. The casuistry of Romantic individualism underlies and ultimately resolves the tensions between Godwin’s and Scott’s approaches to justice in their novels and in their overt politics, and I track both authors’ experiments with creative jurisprudence to conclude that they were not nearly as different from one another as is generally assumed.

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